Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Cyclist and the Roundabout

Roundabout, Limavady Northern Ireland
Though not nearly as widespread as in the UK, roundabouts - also known as rotaries and traffic circles - are fairly common back in New England, particularly in the sort of areas that brevets and similar rides tend to take us through. Personally, I don't know anyone in the US - be they cyclist or driver - who actually likes roundabouts, and I am no exception. Over the years my attitude toward them has transitioned from one of pure terror to one of a more manageable, subdued loathing. There are right of way rules to navigating them, but somehow the traffic flow ends up being chaotic despite those rules. Drivers don't always yield to other vehicles correctly, and bikes they sometimes outright ignore. As a cyclist, you can end up waiting your turn forever despite having the right of way. Or worse yet, a driver's failure to yield once you're already moving through the circle can result in a close call or collision. 

Now cycling in Northern Ireland, my relationship with roundabouts has moved to an entirely new, downright intimate level. On the North Coast they are everywhere, often used in leu of traffic lights, and I go through at least one - but more typically anywhere between three and six - every day. There are large roundabouts the size of parks. There are smaller ones that might display a modern sculpture or two. And there are tiny ones that are just painted circles on tarmac, easy to miss. There are urban roundabouts through which cars move at a crawl. And there are rural ones, through which lorries fly at top speed. 

Most impressive of all are the roundabouts situated along steep hills. One such stunner is just outside of Limavady town, approaching the village of Aghanloo. When I first saw this thing appear in front of me, my jaw dropped. When approached from one direction, this roundabout requires being ready to yield or stop while climbing a 10% grade, from another direction while descending the same. And to be clear, the hill does not start or end with the roundabout; the intersection is half way through the climb. For a cyclist this can be rather ...interesting, requiring precise control of one's bike and brakes.

But one thing I realised about the roundabouts in Northern Ireland over time, is that they are predictable: There is no chaos or confusion, as everyone actually follows the right of way rules. Traveling on the left side of the road, you yield to traffic approaching from the right, and in the same manner other traffic yields to you. Unlike in New England, drivers do actually yield when it is another vehicle's turn - even if that other vehicle is a bike! It took me some time to trust in this, but once I started to all the stress from navigating the roundabouts was removed. When it's my turn, I go and when it's not, I stop: easy, and, admittedly, more efficient than a traffic light. I like it!

What has been your experience with roundabouts as a cyclist in the area where you live?

57 comments:

  1. Riding North Thailand, several roundabouts, no more chaotic than any other traffic when on a bicycle, but the drivers do smile when they cut you off.

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  2. A couple of them sprung up here in the last 3 or 4 years and more on the way. I actually like them but mostly because nothings more fun than a deserted roundabout, a little rain, a rear-wheel drive car and a lovely moonlit night. I know it's hooliganism, but 8 or 10 laps, sideways, steering with the throttle before slinging yourself back out onto the road without lifting or braking... Heheheh.

    On a bike? No opinion.

    Spindizzy

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  3. I'm sure part of the confusion is that across the united states there is no standard: in the west, you rarely see these things; in new jersey, the car joining the rotary has right of way; in MA, the car IN the rotary has the right of way.

    I've started taking them on the same way that I do in car -- just a small bit of fearlessness!

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    1. One minor correction. In Massachusetts it is clearly the rule that the car with the most dents has the right of way regardless of road position.

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  4. My only problem with roundabouts, which are quite new in the mid west, is that drivers have not figured out when or if to signal their departure.

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  5. I hate the bloody things. They involve turning and going fast enough to keep up with traffic - two things I'm crap at. There are a couple of small ones that I'll do but otherwise I'll get off and push.

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    1. Good decision. When in doubt, just get off and push the bike. I do that at times.

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  6. Americans will never figure it out, en masse.

    Not enough practice.

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  7. I actually quite enjoy them. Both as a cyclist and a car driver, but particularly as a cyclist. For me it is one of those moments where I'm actually NOT sharing the road; instead I am full-on-and-center a vehicle and make no effort to be to the side of the road. It would be unwise to even try to share in this situation.

    I also like the sensation of riding a tight circle swiftly.

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  8. So thankfully the roundabout in my town has light traffic. Motorists stutter their way through it, never sure who has right-of-way. It is a wide curb lane, so mostly I can keep far right, even if the motorist doesn't properly yield to me. I just have to watch for right-hooks and be prepared for the emergency right turn maneuver. That's one advantage maybe that the roundabout has over a traditional intersection, the right hook and left cross are blunted, because the angles are relaxed and actual collision mechanics give a cyclist a better chance to ride away...or at least be ok to ride another day.

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  9. http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/30/roundabouts-efficient-or-annoying/

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  10. Around Seattle, we have what appears to be the opposite problem of New England: Polite or cautious drivers yield when a car is still on the very far side of a large roundabout.

    And usually, you get stuck behind them. More than once did I assume that the car ahead would proceed through the roundabout, only to have to slam on my brakes when they stopped.

    Roundabouts work best with skilled, assertive drivers, which appears to be what you experience in Northern Ireland. France is similar. In those situations, roundabouts allow traffic can flow smoothly through intersections with much less stopping than is needed with stop signs or traffic lights.

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  11. We have a few near my house in Atlanta - as a cyclist and driver, I love the things, though I'm not so fond of the individual drivers who are too incompetent to do them correctly

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  12. Ideally, a roundabout should be a New England driver's dream--it is basically permission to drive like a maniac. With roundabouts, hesitation, not aggressiveness, is what mucks up the works. If you are approaching the roundabout and nobody is coming, GO, for God's sake. If youmare in the roundabout, GO, and don't make up your own rules about letting everybody in. It's not rocket science.

    As far as being on a bike, and this is not restricted to roundabouts--It's aggravating when drivers feel they have to always let you go. Don't force me to follow your made-up personal traffic laws. I will be just fine, now GO!

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  13. I'm not mad keen on them. Even though 99% of vehicles yield to bikes, that still leaves roughly one every week or so that tries to kill me by driving onto the bit of the road I was cycling on. I'll go out of my way to avoid a big roundabout or turning right on a two-lane one. They're trialling a Dutch-style roundabout with a separated cycle path to use in London and I hope they start to use them more widely, because I think they're pretty lethal

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    1. One step further is this one: http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/experimental-bicycle-roundabout-in-zwolle/

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  14. I like them in theory, in practice I am not so sure. My commute to work includes two, in an office park.

    On one, I have had to do the stare-down right-of-way thing when I was in the roundabout and the car was entering; I don't much like that.

    In the second one, twice I have seen a car go the wrong way to avoid the terrible, terrible burden of driving *more than halfway around*; I suppose I should be appalled, except that it confirms every nasty opinion I have ever had about the laziness and stupidity of (many) car drivers -- there's got to be a German word for that, but I'm not sure what it would be ("pleasure in having your worst predictions proved true").

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  15. Like in New England by the sound of it, we've had a bunch of roundabouts installed here in Winnipeg without much of a driver education program to go with them. The whole "yield to traffic within the roundabout"-thing seems to go largely unheeded. As does signalling a left or right turn. Drivers tend to assume I'm doing the exact opposite of whatever they're doing.

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  16. When touring, I'm never sure what the local rules are, so if there is traffic in the roundabout, I just get off and walk.

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  17. There was a new roundabout recently put in to replace a somewhat funky three-way intersection. The local bike org worked with the city engineers and came up with what I think is a pretty good way of accommodating the car traffic and bike traffic to minimize conflict. On one side of the round about, they have the incoming bike lane merge up into an over sized sidewalk just prior to the circle which spits you out after the circle back onto the bike lane. On the other side, the bike lane merges up the side walk which then turns into a pedestrian crosswalk. It's not perfect but it does keep a cyclist from having to go into the roundabout if they don't want to.

    Personally, I hate traffic lights. Some cars just seem annoyed waiting with a bike in front of them and some lights don't switch if there is a just a bike at the intersection. This means I have to sit there waiting for the light to turn until a car pulls up. Boooo.

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  18. You have picked the most gradient-ed roundabout in the province, and passed with flying colours. :-)

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  19. A wee correction in that you personally know at least TWO people residing in the US who do like roundabouts! In fact, *Fear Rothar* and I regularly comment how Watertown Square would be sooooo much better as a proper roundabout, as opposed to a *square*. Don't get me started on New England *squares*

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  20. My regular commute in Auckland used to take me through this monster twice a day. I actually liked it more than the big light-controlled intersections on that route because everyone had to slow down for it, giving me the opportunity to get across two lanes to turn right. At multi-lane traffic lights I often ended up dismounting and crossing on the pedestrian signal.

    This roundabout is slated for replacement with lights, along with combined bus/cycle lanes (which are another topic altogether).

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    1. In Morocco there is often a policeman stationed in or near the circle, and he means business, so cars generally behave. For the most part. But the scooters and mopeds will appear from nowhere and startle you. Holding your line is key but requires nerves of steel. If you ride in Boston or Paris you’ll soon acquire the feel here for “swimming with the fishes”. Place du Maroc in Tangier is probably a good example of a nail biter circle, and Place Dakar in Casablanca, but there are many.

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  21. Here is Australia, when roundabouts first started becoming the big thing, they were chaotic as people didn't know the rules to follow when using them. Now they work better, but I think they present challenges for cyclists in a number of ways. If they are multi lane, cyclists can end up in a cars blind spot, if single lane, they can be so narrow that cars or trucks will end up taking up part of the cyclists' lane which is often on the outer part of the lane. I try to avoid them. The hilly one you describe sounds like hell. What about when you are going uphill and need to take off quickly? Just not possible ...

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  22. When merging, look them in the eyes and pedal like hell.

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  23. Here in Victoria Australia, roundabouts are fairly common. As a motorist, they are quite efficient at keeping traffic flowing - you just make sure you give way to any thing on the right (we drive on the left). As a cyclist the same is true provided that the motorists follow the rule. It only gets dicey where there are multi-lane roundabouts (similar to James in Auckland) or occasionally, when motorists ignore you or attempt to overtake you. Usually you can whip through most roundabouts faster that a car.

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  24. I cut my urban cycling teeth as a boy, 9-to 18, on roundabouts in the remnants of the Raj (Delhi, Nairobi, Karachi) where it was well understood that merging vehicles deferred to vehicles already in the roundabout. Cycling these was no worse than cycling on any other part of the road. In fact, on big, six-lane Kenyatta Avenue heading into downtown Nairobi (where roundabouts were known colloquially as "kipleftis" from the signs at each entrance reading "keep left" -- traffic was leftside in these countries), with the downhill slope from the Westlands suburb, I'd crank up to 30+ and cut lanes to go straight through, thus easily outdistancing the auto traffic for a safe landing back in the leftmost lane. Even Washington, DC has long had many of them and drivers get used to them.

    That is the key. Once drivers get used to them, they become "second nature" as everything else does. It's the transition period that is dangerous and annoying. Albuquerque has installed quite a number, and drivers generally have no idea what to do with them: either coming to a complete stop, as if to ask, "What next?" or boldly plunging ahead while ignoring everyone else. (We've gotten past driving around them clockwise, though I sometimes see large, jacked pickups drive over smaller ones.)

    There is one tight roundabout locally where the bike lanes ends just at the entrance, auto traffic is generally speeding at 40, 15 over the limit until the very entrance to the thing, and I have a climb leading to the roundabout entrance. I have to very carefully time my merge left into auto traffic, where I boldly take up the entire damned road, accelerating as I can -- I'm not going to let any motorist squeeze me up against a curb, let alone do a right hook in front of me. Fortunately, I speed up as the cars brake, so if all goes well and I time it right, I don't slow anyone down. (But I damned well will if I have to.)

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  25. On Route 2 from I-91 to Boston, a friend was driving too late, too tired in a Triumph TR6 and missed the huge roundabout until it completely took out the front suspension, steering, tires and rims, shocks and everything else attached to the front of the chassis. Came to a rapid halt on the grass.

    For roundabouts to work, they need to be everywhere and the traffic has to be statistically equal from each entry point.

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  26. One thing I've noted with roundabouts, is the necessity to go straight through. The dangerous thing to do on a bicycle is to stick edge while going through with the curve of the road. (which seems to be encouraged when, as in Melbourne, you have roundabouts on streets with bike lanes) Once you move out of the direct line of traffic, you're practically inviting the car behind you to try to power through and cut you off, just as you want to exit the roundabout (as drivers always seem to overestimate the speed differential).

    With roundabouts it's necessary to take the lane, even going straight ahead.

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  27. You have pointed out something I have suspected since roundabouts became more common in British Columbia; they work better in jurisdictions that drive on the left side of the road. There, the right-of-way at the roundabout is consistent with the vehicle on the right having the right-of-way. Here, driving on the right, when we approach the roundabout and yield to the car in the circle, it is the reverse of the vehicle on the right having the right-of-way.

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    1. Except here in Massachusetts where on many entrance ramps, those on the right must yield to traffic on the left. Very confusing.

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  28. We have a few roundabouts where I live in Gatineau but by chance there is a cycling path that passes just beside those, although I prefer to ride on the road where it is permitted rather than a cycling path I make a few exceptions, roundabouts are one

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  29. I find my experience with roundabouts here in Maryland to be a challenge at best. European drivers must pass more stringent license testing than here in America, where it is very easy to get a license, making them much better drivers in my opinion.

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  30. Another Australian (from Perth). Roundabouts (single and dual lane) are very common here, and some of them have bike lanes around them too. As a driver, I don't mind them-- people have pretty much got the rules down pat to right of way. As a cyclist I have received a fright more than once on multi-lane roundabouts where buses have taken up both lanes to go through (which they are allowed to do!) but have overtaken and pushed me very close to the kerb. But as a whole, I don't find them any more of a pest than other traffic intersections, and probably prefer them to lights as they often allow me to keep momentum and not have to accelerate from a complete stop at a green light with several cars behind me...

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  31. There are several round-abouts in the Lake Tahoe area - Truckee to be exact. Nobody knows that they must yield to traffic in the round-about. As a result there are an awful lot of close calls. So far, though, I've not had a problem on my bicycle. Perhaps my bell and my (incredibly loud survival whistle which I wear around my neck) helps.

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  32. Love 'em, but I like single-lane rotaries much more than the multi-lane monsters at the Cape Cod bridges or I-93 interchanges.

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    1. Yes. Single lane, fun and efficient, multi-lane frantic and dangerous. I read somewhere the old-time name for them is gyratory circuses, kinda says it all.

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  33. I encounter a rotary on my daily commute and generally have no problem but I do up my alert level. They take planning. Some rotaries are better than others and this one is relatively gentle because most traffic goes straight through with me (what I'll call 6 o'clock to 12 o'clock) and there are stop signs at 6, 9 and 12 on my way in; at 6, 3 and 12 on my way home. Even here in Boston I think most drivers honor the yield to left rule, so that's where I anticipate trouble (and I know I need to yield). I feel safer running the stop sign (it's for traffic calming reasons after all, and I like getting visibly in front of the traffic). I just stare down any traffic entering to my right and by getting the jump at the stop sign I get ahead of anyone who would be going right while I am going through. It's also about 2 lanes wide, which gives great leeway.

    For sh!tz and giggles, google image "place de l'etoile traffic."

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  34. I used to commute in inner city Melbourne where they had busy roundabouts with lots if traffic and a couple if tram lines running through them. Never dull.

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  35. Here, in Pasadena CA, we recently got a few installed. These are the dumbest roundabouts in the world! Get this, they have stop signs before you enter them. The worst of both: an all-way stop and a roundabout, rolled into one. Of course, the traffic planners in Pasadena can usually be relied on to mess things up, so it doesn't really surprise us...

    --Nik & Jo

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  36. I'd guess one of these wouldn't go down too well! It exists, I've driven it, and can report that it actually works surprisingly well! No idea what it would be like on a cycle. Scary methinks... http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Roundabout_(Hemel_Hempstead)

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  37. Like this one --

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUug9VIqh_g

    -- it makes you re-think traffic circles.

    I used to ride in such places -- well, maybe not quite that bad. The key to learning how is to start when you are a child and have no idea of the danger; then you get used to it and take it for granted ever after.

    Watch the man carrying his 50 lb bike over his head as he threads through the cars - and the pedestrians fighting for space with motor vehicles. Amazing.

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  38. Our community has close to a dozen roundabouts that have been installed within the past couple of years, and they work fine. Skeptics predicted mass death and destruction would result, but they were wrong. People running stoplights are a much more serious problem. I know some of the designers and they say that modern roundabouts are quite different from older "rotaries" and "traffic circles" used in other communities. One advantage of roundabouts is that they save energy by keeping traffic moving. I've never had a problem, on my bike or driving.

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  39. We have quite a few roundabouts in my town, mostly taking the place of large 4-way stops or small traffic lights. I like them as a driver and have mixed feelings as a cyclist.

    Drivers here are very good about yeilding to other drivers, and so the roundabouts move more smoothly/quickly than stop signs or lights. However, visibility is not good for cyclists. I think this is an inherent problem with the circle design, not driver inattention: I myself find it difficult to spot bikes on them. That said, in light traffic I love being able to coast through without hitting the brakes!

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  40. David Hembrow's blog about Dutch traffic design has some excellent posts about roundabouts and how to design good ones:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/roundabouts

    In that country cyclists don't share the space with motor vehicles; the cycling facilities (which are standard and normal) are built into the side. Cyclists have priority at junctions.

    Worth reading through.

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    1. Yes, the goodness or badness of roundabouts has more to do with how well they are designed than with the concept. Even our own FHWA has a pretty thorough design guide http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/research/safety/00068/

      Most transportation people, I think, feel that single lane roundabouts are ok for bikes, but multi-lane roundabouts are big trouble.

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  41. Circles are a bit weird. Been through many riding bike through NJ and beyond. Rode through one in Portland, Or- on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood- and thought, why? I feel we have a long way to go in bringing the sharing the road mentality to the world- and we all have to just keep working on that. Here's some interesting words touching on some benefits of roundabouts and a more important concept we all need to work on. huzzah! http://www.ted.com/talks/gary_lauder_s_new_traffic_sign_take_turns.html

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  42. In the UK; no problem. In Australia; watch out for drivers not giving way or even understanding how to negotiate them correctly.

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  43. In Poland we have lots of roundabouts, particularly in small towns. I like them, both as a car driver and as a cyclist too. The traffic flows smoothly, everyone knows what to do.

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  44. Many people confuse older styles of circular intersections with modern roundabouts. East coast rotaries, large multi-lane traffic circles (Arc D’Triumph), and neighborhood traffic circles are not modern roundabouts. If you want to see the difference between a traffic circle, a rotary (UK roundabout) and a modern roundabout (UK continental roundabout), go to http://tinyurl.com/kstate-RAB to see pictures. And here’s another site that shows the difference between an older rotary and a modern roundabout: http://tinyurl.com/bzf7qmg
    The FHWA (http://tinyurl.com/fhwaRAB) has a video about modern roundabouts that is mostly accurate (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhHzly_6lWM ).

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  45. I live in Boston and there are lots of rotaries in my life. I regularly pass through a single lane rotary on my bike, which is fine, but I would never ride my bike in a busy two-lane rotary (e.g, Centre St. & Arborway). I would get off and walk, or take an alternate route.

    When I'm in a car, however, I prefer them to traffic lights. I think that many of my friends like them, too--and we like to laugh at those who don't know how to navigate them (because we're Massholes, I guess). Seriously, though, I find that the majority of drivers know the rules and overall they're more efficient. I agree with above commenters that hesitant drivers are more problematic than aggressive ones, which is why we get to laugh rather than curse.

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  46. Roundabouts have recently been constructed where i live and drivers have no idea what they are doing! I've been knocked off my bike twice in the past two weeks. Beginning yesterday, I get off my bike and walk.

    Also, First time reading your blog and its great. I will definitely be coming back often!

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  47. Roundabouts eliminate the deadly T-bone crash which is a good thing. Traffic is faster through roundabouts than stop signs or lights, and really fast with confidant assertive drivers. So I like roundabouts in my car. I hate them on my bike. Drivers look right through me, drivers often don't give me the right of way when I am in the circle, drivers are going to kill me. There are two circles on my commute to work. I avoid one by actually jumping on a sidewalk to ride on the left of the circle. The other I make eye contact with any approaching driver or I assume they 'don't' see me. My assumption is most often right.

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  48. We just got a few new roundabouts in western Massachusetts: one at the entrance to Look Park in Northampton, at Route 9 and Bridge Road, and a double roundabout at the intersection of Bay Road and Route 116 in South Amherst by Atkins Farms. I love them, as both a driver and a cyclist. The latter intersection in particular was quite dangerous, as drivers darted out into the smallest gap in traffic.

    When I lived in France and England, I also liked proper modern roundabouts. In Paris, I was happy cycling through big urban traffic circles, such as the Place de la Bastille or République (now reconfigured), because despite the apparent chaos a bike is moving just as fast as most cars. But Bastille and other Parisian circles aren't proper roundabouts, since they're signalized.

    On the other hand, some of the larger English traffic circles, especially near motorway interchanges, are hellish on a bike or in a car. If there is bicycle infrastructure, it is substandard and was clearly added as an afterthought. The circles in Oxford on the A40 at the Woodstock Road and the Banbury Road are terrible.

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  49. As a walking advocate considered the roundabout not the ideal for the bicyclist until early this year when connecting the dots between cycle track (that the Iphone of urban bicycling now) and the "patched" roundabout (the iPad?) which gets one into walker territory as single lane roundabouts reduce walker injuries by about 90%--with pathed roundabouts and cycle track you get to the same level even with bicyclists of all skills and ages (the data from European studies). The dialogue above mentions ramping to shared path and crossings which is one step removed from cycle track street sections/pathed roundabouts at intersections. Tony Redington Blog: TonyRVT.blogspot.com

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